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A reunion for Rose

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ASH, England – Justin Rose left Royal Birkdale with barely a backward glance 10 years ago, striding confidently toward an inexorable path of instant riches and superstardom.

After a dream finish to the 1998 British Open, holing out from the rough 50 yards short of the green on the 72nd hole to finish fourth, the 17-year-old English amateur was destined for greatness.

The accolades trailed behind him as he left. More than one breathless scribe cleverly insisted that the future of British, and maybe European golf, was Rose-tinted.

When Rose turned pro the following day an expectant public awaited the excellence that was surely just around the corner.

Except, there was one problem, and it was a big one: Rose wasn’t ready. And once the roars of a patriotic crowd died down, it didn’t take long for the reality of life on tour to kick in. Tournament after tournament passed, 21 in all, without a made cut or a paycheck. From being the next big thing, suddenly Rose was a contender for being one of the biggest sporting busts of all time, and all this before his 19th birthday.

For a time, it appeared that his career would stall completely and that the memory of that glorious afternoon in 1998 would remain his one – and only highlight. His stroke average on the European Tour in 1999 was a woeful 75.18.

However, as Rose returns to compete at Royal Birkdale this week for the first time in a decade, he does so safe in the knowledge that the potential announced to the world in his teenage years is now well on the way to being realized.

With Tiger Woods absent and Rose sitting at number nine in the world rankings, he is seen as the best hope for a European winner, especially given his past form on the course.

“It is going to be very exciting for me to go back after 10 years and everything that has happened in between," Rose said. "Now I'm returning as I'd always hoped to, as a top ten player in the world and the European No.1. It will nice to go there and believe I have a chance to win the tournament. For a period of time after Birkdale, my career did not work out the way I wanted it to. There were a lot of emotions. I was desperate to get through but my approach wasn’t right. I wasn’t attacking, I was just trying to get round and somehow make a cut.

The breakthrough to end the horrendous run of missed cuts came almost a year after Birkdale. He made the weekend at the European Grand Prix with a clutch up-and-down on the 36th hole, a success which must have felt like winning the claret jug itself. No doubt much of his success came as a result of an improved short game. In 2001, he lowered his scoring average by about two strokes. In 2002, he won twice on the European Tour, and collected two other international wins.

Yet life had a cruel twist in store for him, when his father Ken, the driving force behind his career, lost his battle with leukemia.

That experience rocked Rose to his core, but his ability brought him through. Without his father’s guiding hand, he had to make his own way.

Emerging at the same time was Ian Poulter, a fellow Englishman but a different personality altogether.

Poulter’s hyperactive approach contrasted with Rose’s quieter method, but the pair became close friends and have remained so ever since.

“It helped us both having someone to share the experience with as we tried to get settled on Tour,” said Poulter. “Justin had obviously had a rough time of things but we would bounce things off each other and it was nice to have that company. There was never any doubt of his ability and he is showing now just what a quality player he can be.”

The British Open’s return to Birkdale may have come at a perfect time for Rose. There is no denying that Woods' injury-enforced withdrawal has given an added edge to all contenders and the home crowd hopes for more European interest after Ireland’s Padraig Harrington beat Spaniard Sergio Garcia in last year’s playoff.

“I went back to Birkdale in May,” admitted Rose. “I wanted to go and relive some memories. I had a good look around, got used to things again, and gathered some useful information.”

Rose’s form over the past 18 months has been outstanding, including a top five finish at the Masters and the European Order of Merit title in 2007.

“Deep down Justin has always known he has had the ability,” said Rose’s coach Nick Bradley. “The success he has had over the last year really just confirmed that. Now we are looking for him to push on. If I didn’t think he could win majors then I shouldn’t be in the job.”

If Rose gets on a run early in this year’s Open, the memories of 10 years ago will come flooding back. As a teenager he was able to cope with the pressure and expectation, blocking it all out behind giant Oakley sunglasses.

“I sometimes look back and I’m amazed at how calm I seemed,” said Rose. “I was only 17 and I’m not sure if I really realized what was happening. But I would love to get into that position again. That why I’m playing the game, for moments like that when it is all on the line.”

However, Rose will need to start converting promising performances into more victories. Too often, he has raised expectations with excellent early rounds in major championships – he held or shared the lead after 18 holes of the Masters on three occasions, in 2004, 2007, and this year – only to falter over the weekend. The biggest knock on him is that he can't close the deal.

Rose knows that until he makes the breakthrough in a big event, there will be those who question his mettle. What better place to conquer those demons than at Royal Birkdale?